On the voyage he had begun those verses which we know as Tristia, “Sorrows.” Now he continued them, and sent them to his wife, his daughter, his stepdaughter, and his friends. Probably the sensitive Roman exaggerated the horrors of his new home: a treeless rock where nothing would grow, and yet shut out from the sun by the Euxine mists; the cold so bitter that in some years the snow remained all summer long; the Black Sea stiff with ice through gloomy winters, and the Danube so frozen that it offered no bar to the raids of hinterland barbarians upon the city’s mixture of knife-wearing Getae and half-breed Greeks. When he thought of Roman skies and Sulmo’s fields his heart broke, and his poetry, still beautiful in form and phrase, took on a depth of feeling that it had never fathomed before.
These Tristia, and the poetic letters to his friends Ex Ponto – “From the Pontus” or Black Sea- have nearly all the charms of his greater works. A simple vocabulary that made him a pleasure even in school, scenes vividly realized by insight and imagery, characters brought to life by touches of psychological subtlety, phrases compact with experience or thought, an unfailing grace of speech and flowing ease of line: all these stayed with him in his exile, attended by a seriousness and tenderness whose absence makes the earlier poems unworthy of a man. Strength of character never came to him; as once he had spoiled his verse with superficial sensuality, so now he flooded his lines with tears and suppliant adulation of the Prince.
He envied these poems which could go to Rome. “Go, my book, and in my name greet the places I love” and “the dear soil of my native land;” perhaps, he tells it, some brave friend will hand it to a relenting emperor. In every letter he still hopes for pardon, or pleads for at least some milder home. He thinks each day of his wife and calls her name in the night; he prays that he may kiss her whitened hairs before he dies. But no pardon came. After nine years of exile the broken man of sixty welcomed death. His bones, as he had begged, were brought to Italy and buried near the capital. His prediction of lasting fame was justified by time. His hold on the Middle Ages rivaled Virgil’s; his Metamorphoses and Heroides became rich sources of medieval romance; Boccaccio and Tasso, Chaucer and Spenser, drew upon him without stint; and the painters of the Renaissance had a treasure trove of subjects in his sensuous verse. He was the great romanticist of a classic age. With his passing ended one of the great flowering epochs in the history of letters. The Augustan was not a supreme literary age, like the Periclean or Elizabethan; even at its best there is in its prose a pompous rhetoric, and in its verse a formal perfection, that seldom come from soul to soul. We find no Aeschylus here, no Euripides, no Socrates, not even a Lucretius or a Cicero. Imperial patronage inspired and nourished, repressed and narrowed, the literature of Rome. An aristocratic age- like that of Augustus, or Louis XIV, or eighteenth-century England- exalts moderation and good taste and tends in letters to a “classic” style in which reason and form dominate feeling and life. Such literature is more finished and less powerful, more mature and less influential, than the literature of passionately creative periods or minds. But within the classic range this age deserved the compliment of its name. Never had sober judgment found expression in such perfect art; even the madcap revelry of Ovid was cooled into a classic mold. In him and Virgil and Horace the Latin language as a poetic medium reached its zenith. It would never be so rich and resonant, so subtle and compact, so pliant and melodious again.